Time to end our reliance on unique users

Working out the circulation of a newspaper is straightforward – find out how many copies have been printed, then take away the number returned unsold by newsagents.

From there, newspapers sometimes complicate matters by referring to readership, reasoning that more than one person usually reads a copy – for instance, family members or work colleagues would generally share rather than each buy their own copies. But there can be little arguing with newspaper sales figures.

On the other hand, nothing is straightforward about the way in which we measure website traffic.

The industry standard measurement is ‘unique users’ – simply put, the number of different people who have accessed a website at least once in a month. It’s the only figure which the newspaper circulation body, Audit Bureau of Circulation, compiles.

That makes a certain amount of sense – after all, it’s as close as any measure gets to newspaper readership figures. But in fact unique users are even less practical than the measure they replaced – ‘page impressions’, the total number of individual web pages that have been read.

Here are three reasons why unique users are a worse way of counting web traffic:

1. The total of unique users is more volatile

Every now and then, a story on a local newspaper website will go global; typically a quirky story which a big aggregator like Digg has highlighted. Suppose 100,000 people around the world visit the newspaper’s site, read the funny story and then leave. That skews the total of unique users much more than it does page impressions. For a site that usually attracts 100,000 unique users and 1m page impressions, for instance, the visits to that story would double the monthly unique user total but only add 10% to page impressions.

2. Someone who reads 1 story in a month is regarded as equal to someone who reads 100

A reader clicking on a link to one of your stories, realising it’s not what they were expecting, and leaving within a few seconds = 1 unique user. A reader visiting your website several times a day, reading dozens of stories each time = 1 unique user.

That’s absurd. Under the current system, if a newspaper website wants to increase its ABC traffic figure, it is being encouraged to appeal to the one-off visitor from anywhere in the world. Once someone has visited the website once, they cease to be of any value for the rest of the month so there is no point in trying to cultivate a loyal community of local readers.

That has an effect on the type of stories you are being encouraged to publish. Instead of the important functions of a newspaper – holding the powerful to account, reporting events in the local courts and council chambers – concentrating on frothy link-bait would deliver much better results.

Again, page impressions are a better measure here. If someone just reads 1 page in a month, they count as 1. Someone who reads 100 pages counts as 100. So the incentive would be to provide a much richer, deeper website to keep readers on the site for longer.

3. Readers access websites from many devices

1 in 4 people now access the internet on their smartphones. Sales of laptops and iPads are rocketing, often as a second computer alongside an existing desktop PC. In my opinion, every website should be increasing its unique user figures each month without doing anything extra, just through the new ways in which readers are accessing it.

And, of course, it’s skewing unique users. Take an example of someone who reads ten stories on your website on their work PC, a home PC, a mobile phone and a laptop within the month. That reader counts as four unique users. But if they were to read those ten stories just on their home PC, they are one unique user. Counting page impressions instead would mean both readers are treated the same.

The solution

I am not advocating a return to page impressions, as they have their own set of problems. Instead I propose ABCe should count two measures: both the total of unique users, as now, AND the average length of time those users spend on the site.

That way, websites would need to encourage people to keep coming back and stay online for longer. Meanwhile, a website which has 120,000 monthly unique users who only stick around for 1 minute would not necessarily be seen as superior to one with 100,000 unique users spending 7 minutes on the site.

I’d be interested in hearing any other proposals.


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